Ron Wilson Needs To Manage His Troops Better

October 21st, 2011 7 Comments

Fresh off the heals of an embarrassing  6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins, it’s easy to throw mud at the entire Toronto Maple Leafs lineup.

As much as “the players play and the coaches coach”, there can be a tendency to blame the Coach for a loss from time-to-time which, in this case, may be the appropriate response for Thursday nights debacle.

Sure, the players are responsible for their fare share of the carnage, but when you look at the lineup decisions Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson made, he prepared the Maple Leafs for a gunfight by bringing a knife, and we all know how that usually goes!

Let’s examine the facts, shall we?

Wilson had to deal with two of his forwards (Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur) having to sit out of the lineup due to injury on Thursday night. Wilson was also all but forced to sit defenseman Mike Komisarek who, slowly but surely, had been playing himself out of the lineup, reverting to his slow and undisciplined ways of the 2010-11 season.

With two of his top forwards out of the lineup and yet another change to his defense corps it is hard to blame Wilson for what transpired against the Bruins, yet, there is a lesson Wilson can learn from the Boston game.

In his short tenure with the Maple Leafs Wilson has been a lot of things—one thing he has never been is patient.

Long before joining the Maple Leafs Wilson was known for making changes to the lineup of his hockey clubs in the blink in the eye. When things went sour in San Jose there would be a ton of changes to Wilson’s top three forward lines and/or his defense corps.

Not only did this cause a lot of frustration for the fans, it also irritated his players to no end as many of his troops found it difficult to find a consistent level of chemistry.

Now don’t get me wrong, given Wilson’s successful regular season record in San Jose there is an argument to be made that change was a good thing when he coached the Sharks. Then you look at the lack of chemistry his teams often had in the playoffs and you wonder if constant short term change caused those long term playoff woes?

Let’s face it, there is a long list of evidence that Wilson has a penchant for embracing change too often and, in many respects, far too early. Such was the case at the beginning of the 2011-12 season—especially when you consider the changes he has made on defense— and it backfired on him on Thursday night, at least from my point of view.

To be fair, with MacArthur and Armstrong on the disabled list Thursday night Wilson was all but forced to make changes, but he didn’t have to continually mess with the lineup during the game last night and he certainly should have had more foresight than to put Jonas Gustavsson—a goaltender who has now given up 17 goals in his past three starts going back to last season and is in dire need of a confidence booster— between the pipes against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins IN BOSTON.

Look around at the successful playoff teams in the NHL, many of them employ consistent lineups with minimal changes from game-to-game.

Sure, injuries often dictate changes to the lineup and when things are not going well the coach has somewhat of an obligation to make changes in an effort to get his troops going. That said, there is a fine line between making changes for change sake (see David Steckel playing on the first line for parts of Thursday nights tilt) and doing what’s right for the team—keeping it consistent.

Last season Wilson employed one of the most successful second lines in all of hockey. In fact, the trio of Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski netted a total of 177 points—good enough for 16th overall amongst all NHL lines.

One of the main reasons this trio of misfits played so well was Wilson’s penchant for keeping them together on a regular basis.

Given the success of the MacRussian line, it’s easy to see why an NHL coach should do whatever possible to stick with his regulars.

Of course, Wilson has long been hampered by inconsistencies on the Maple Leafs first line, which often has led to a revolving door down the middle, including a short lived (very short lived) experiment of using sniper Phil Kessel at centre last season.

And, to be fair, with an early season injury to Tim Connolly (his perceived top centre) Wilson has had to slot Tyler Bozak into the role of first line centre.

But with Bozak playing well on the first line and his two wingers off to tremendous starts to their seasons including Phil Kessel receiving player of the week honors, Wilson just had to make changes to the first line at the first sign of a problem—why?

Sure, Bozak, Kessel and Joffrey Lupul struggled for parts of the game against the Bruins, but what message are you sending when at the first sign of hardship you break up your best line?

Bottom line—they should have been afforded the opportunity to work through their struggles, they should have been kept together.

And why, less than 24 hours after being sent down to the Maple Leafs AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies do you ask Nazem Kadri to fill in for the ailing Colby Armstrong when you already had sufficient players up with the club that could fill the checking role that Armstrong brings to the table?

The poor kid had barely unpacked his bag when he got a phone call sometime after midnight. Talk about an emotional roller coaster, talk about a high pressure situation.

It’s not just the forwards that have been broken up, on the backend Wilson has failed to establish any kind of consistency this season—especially with his bottom pairing.

Rookie defenseman Jake Gardiner played well to begin the season only to find Wilson succumbing to a cry for ice time from off-season defensive acquisition Cody Franson.

Gardiner did nothing negative to warrant being taken out of the lineup, yet found himself watching from the press box early on in the season. What message does that send to the other players—Do your job well and you may find yourself in the press box?

When you consider the poor play of defenseman Luke Schenn to start the season, if anyone should have been benched it was him, yet he continued to play.

Fact is, Wilson showed zero patience for Gardiner (who did nothing to warrant being benched) and too much patience for Schenn (who has looked tentative and rushed), it’s really that simple.

Schenn has watched his ice time reduced from 22:06 on opening night against the Montreal Canadiens to a minuscule 11:54 in Tuesday nights action against the Winnipeg Jets.

How did Wilson respond to Schenn’s uninspired error-laden play against the Jets? He sent him over the boards for 26 shifts on Thursday night against the Bruins, amounting to 19:13 of game action.

So, to review—Gardiner plays well, gets benched. Schenn plays terrible, bottoms out against the Jets and gets an increase in ice time. Say what?

Never mind the salary concerns, never mind the fact that Gardiner is a rookie and Schenn has proven in the past to be a staple on the Buds blueline, the bottom line is Wilson’s evaluation and/or usage of his players has been poor and it will eventually cost his club valuable points in the standings.

The bottom line is Gardiner never should have found himself on the bench. The fact Gardiner was watching from the press box at any point this season is yet another example of Wilson mismanaging his troops.

For Toronto to be successful they will have to exhibit a measure of cohesiveness from the top line right down to the fourth line grinders. That means establishing a depth chart and sticking with it.

Remember the good ‘ol days when former Maple Leafs bench boss Pat Burns used to establish specific roles for his players? Burns would challenge each of his troops to excel at one aspect of the game and reward them accordingly.

For some players that was scoring, for others it was checking or shutting down the opposition on the penalty kill. In the end, players knew their place, knew their roles and often rewarded Burns with herculean efforts on a regular basis.

Burns could get more out of an average player because he had an uncanny ability to spot a players skill set and, as long as Burns kept his troops in their comfort zones, he usually maximized his players efforts and, in turn, his teams’ success.

But I digress…

Of course there are limits to not making change, such as when a player like Schenn comes out flat five games in a row, but you get the idea.

One change at a time, not three and four changes a night is a far better strategy than making big changes to the roster, night-in, night-out.

In order for the Maple Leafs to be successful Wilson must:

  1. Establish a depth chart and stick to it where possible.
  2. Make conservative, not wholesale changes.
  3. Establish chemistry between the lines and on special teams.
  4. Reward players for inspired play.

Is it really that simple? Not entirely as injuries often play a role in a coaches decision making process, but there is a lot of truth to what I have written.

For the sake of the fans, the club and for Wilson’s job, let’s hope changes are more thoroughly thought out and that a players good play, rather than hunches and salary cap concerns, is the determining factor as to which players play and which ones sit.

Until next time,

Peace!

7 Comments

  1. Higzy says:

    Very well written article, Mark. Keep up the good work.

  2. nhl fan says:

    I guess playing their third game in four nights and the last two back to back has nothing to do with it.

  3. MarkRitter says:

    Thanks for the comment NHL fan….But that does nothing to dismiss the fact that historically Wilson has a penchant for making changes. The evidence is there to support Wilson tends to make more changes than most NHL coaches. Besides the injuries to Armstrong and MacArthur, which necessitate change, Wilson could have stuck with his lines throughout the game, could have chosen to keep Gardiner in the lineup when he had been one of the better D-men early on in the season, should have put Schenn in he press box and should have had the foresight not to dress Gustavsson in a game against the Bruins on the road. Put it all together and you have a coach that has mismanaged his club and, in the process, took away the early season momentum the team had garnered.

  4. peterj says:

    In some ways Wilson coaches like Scotty B. did with Montreal without much of the success Scotty had. I think his tactics are dated and no longer relevant with todays players( I have been watching hockey for 5+ decades). Most of todays successful coaches are younger than Wilson and their methods are much more sitable to todays game and players. In my opinion Wilson is past his prime and should be replaced by a coach more in tune with todays players.

  5. MarkRitter says:

    And just like that the team is 5-1-1…I agree with a lot of what you are saying though. Just wish he’d manage a little more consistently. Cheers!

  6. Sandy says:

    Wilson is the key to the teams failures. They are playing hard but often look poorly prepared, they demonstrate the same bad stats that have plagued them the past years, lots of give aways, terrible penalty killing and giving up too many shots. These are the results of poor coaching. It is not the constant changes that matter, it is that they are the wrong changes. Wilson does not understand this team, he guesses, sometimes he’s right, but often he is helpless or making things worse.
    I predict the poor penalty killing will drag this team down. Knowing each other well and coordination are essential to PK. I will only believe this team has a bright future when the PK improves. I don’t think Wilson has the skill to improve it. We need a better coach. One who understands this team.

  7. MarkRitter says:

    Thanks for the comment Sandy.

    I echo a lot of what you have said. It’s no accident that Wilson has all those wins to back up his resume- he’s a good coach, but I too see a coach that perhaps has not put his troops in the best situation to win. when you evaluate the losses to boston and Philly you quickly see a club that cannot play a run and gun game against the better teams in the East. Komisarek, Schenn and even Gardiner got caught more than a few times against the Flyers, leading to three break aways for Jagr- amongst others. Special teams have long been a huge issue for the Maple Leafs- no coincidence that Wilson has been at the helm throughout their struggles on the PK and PP. Hopefully Wilson and Burke see the weaknesses in the lineup and either change philosophy or bring in the players that can do the job.

    Cheers!

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